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Q&A: Pakistan's Hamid Mir speaks about climate for press freedom following attack

Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir after being attacked by unknown assailants. (AP/Anjum Naveed)

In April, Geo News senior anchor Hamid Mir was shot multiple times shortly after a CPJ delegation met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who pledged to take several steps to improve journalist security. The investigation into the attack has yielded no accountability. And since the attack, two arrest warrants have been issued by courts in Quetta and Lahore against Mir, and Geo continues to face challenges.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

CPJ: Hamid, the three-member judicial commission looking into the attempt to kill you on April 19th 2014 was supposed to come up with its findings within three weeks. I know you appeared in front of the panel in Karachi and Islamabad several times, and submitted two affidavits. It's been almost three months now, when will the commission release its report? Is there dissension within the panel? Have their conclusions been repressed?

Hamid Mir: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was kind enough to visit me in the hospital after the assassination attempt on my life. He told me that the judicial commission comprised of three Supreme Court judges will come up with its findings in three weeks. When I appeared in front of this commission first time in Karachi on a wheelchair, my wounds were still bleeding. I was holding urine and blood bags in my hands. It was the first time in the history of Pakistan that [a living] victim directly accused the head of the most powerful intelligence agency with a lot of evidence in front of three Supreme Court judges. I also produced the reports of CPJ and Amnesty International about attacks on media to the commission. They called me again and I answered their questions for hours despite the fact that I was not able to move and I was also suffering from pain in my bullet wounds. I told judges that I appeared in front of the commission which investigated the murder of the journalist Saleem Shahzad. I told them that I also appeared in front of the commission which investigated the abduction and torture of journalist Umar Cheema but nothing happened. I told them that many judicial commissions in the past had failed to identify attackers and they were inconclusive. I told them that despite bad experiences about these commissions in the past I was appearing in front of a commission which was investigating the attack on my life because first time three Supreme Court judges were sitting there. I completed my appearances within three weeks. It was also the first time that top management of a media house also appeared in front of the commission and confirmed that they were facing pressures from military and intelligence officials to sack me or stop me from highlighting the issues of enforced disappearances, criticism on security agencies for their involvement in violating the human rights and treason trial of former dictator General Pervez Musharraf. Many other journalists, human rights activists, and one retired Army official appeared in front of the commission as a witness and they confirmed my stance about the involvement of powerful intelligence officials in terrorizing and attacking media. During my appearances to the commission one judge asked me a question-- why do you people report to CPJ about threats to your life? I told him we contact CPJ because our government and judiciary have failed to provide us security and justice. That judge was more interested about the alleged foreign funding to Pakistani media rather than to investigate the attack on my life. The attitude of other two judges was different. Now more than three months have passed and the judicial commission has failed to come up with its findings. According to my information, Karachi police and security agencies are not cooperating with the commission. They are hiding facts and trying to misguide the commission members. I have seen one report of the Karachi police presented to the commission. It is confusing.

CPJ: I've always argued against those sorts of commissions. They are inconclusive, they lack authority to initiate real change, and seem more a way of placating the angry media after an assault takes place. Isn't there an option to resorting to them, to somehow force the courts to address the incident as a crime and investigate it and prosecute it? It happened in the Wali Khan Babar case to some extent, why can't it be forced through in other cases? I know the prime suspects are linked to the government in many of these cases, but there still must be some sort of mechanism to pursue the case in court, even if it comes to a stalling point?

HM: You are right. These kind of commissions lack authority. I told the three judges that they must come up with something which can provide safety to media. We need legislation. We need accountability of powerful intelligence agencies. These agencies should be answerable to the elected parliament but in my case it was proved that one intelligence agency was more powerful than the whole government. Banned outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba were demonstrating in support of the [Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)] openly, they were raising slogans against me and my TV channel. ... Many federal ministers advised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not to support Geo TV. They also asked him that government must take action against Geo TV for naming the head of ISI in the attack on my life. Government was forced to take action against Geo TV for its own survival. Instead of providing justice to me and my TV channel we were implicated in a blasphemy case, we were fined, and transmission of Geo TV was suspended for 15 days.

CPJ: You're facing a legal onslaught, including two arrest warrants issued by courts in Quetta and Lahore for your reporting. And Geo and its management are under the same sort of attacks from the courts, PEMRA, cable operators, the whole spectrum. Is it just Geo's coverage on the day you were shot that has angered the establishment, or is there more to it?

HM: My arrest warrant issued from a Lahore court is very interesting. I wrote a column against attack on the editor of Daily Jang in Multan city and I was accused of defaming the Pakistan Army on the basis of that column. I have said it many times that I am not against the Army. I have written columns in praise of those brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives in fighting Taliban, but how can I tolerate the involvement of some intelligence officials in attacks against media? These powerful people wanted to dictate to me. They wanted to use me. When I refused they attacked me. Now they are using their unlimited resources including some black sheep in media not only against me but also against Geo TV. Unfortunately some extremist groups were used to exploit blasphemy allegations against Geo TV. We apologized on that issue but even then we were not pardoned because our actual crime was to raise voice against the brutalities of powerful people. Yes, they want to punish Geo TV for airing the name of ISI head as a suspect in my case, but there is more than that. They want to control the whole Pakistani media and parliament. They terrorized not only me but many colleagues of mine. They threatened our families. They forced my colleagues to leave Geo TV. They also threatened journalists [at] different newspapers and TV channels not to speak in support [of me]. They used cable operators against us. They forced advertising agencies not to give any ads to Geo TV. Geo TV is suffering huge losses. It is becoming difficult for the management to pay salaries [on] time. We are under attack from all directions. The most powerful people failed to eliminate us physically, now they want to eliminate us economically. They want to make a horrible example [of us]. We cannot fight them with guns but at least we have the right to defend and right to exist and we are trying our best to survive. Our struggle is not just for our own survival. We are actually struggling for the freedom of whole Pakistani media. If we don't survive the freedom of the whole media will go away. Today they have targeted Geo TV but tomorrow they will target those TV channels that were used against us.

CPJ: With attacks on religious minorities, it seems there is a whole wave of religious extremism which the military is not really putting down. It doesn't seem like the military is behind it, it's just that the state does not seem to be reacting to it. And the use of blasphemy charges to go after some members of the media in the courts seems related to that. Are we seeing the emergence of a more religiously restrictive, more conservative Pakistan? If that's true, is it being driven by the grass roots? Or are conservative groups within the government/military/intelligence complex encouraging it, or just stepping back and letting it happen?

HM: I want to make it clear again that the whole Pakistani army is not involved in dirty double games or violating the local laws. Some individuals like Gen. Pervez Musharraf or some bosses of the intelligence agencies have given a bad name to the whole institution. It was very unfortunate that banned outfits like LeT came on the roads a few weeks back with pictures of ISI head in their hands and raising slogans against Geo TV. They were demanding to take action against Geo TV on blasphemy charges. It was clear that supporters of the ISI head were exploiting blasphemy laws against a media house. This attitude encouraged many other extremist groups to attack religious minorities for the same baseless reasons. Civilian government is looking helpless right now. They are under pressure. Some political pygmies are trying to involve the army in politics for becoming big but I think it's the time that media and civil society must support civil rule and democracy because extremism in Pakistan is the product of military regimes. Criticizing the involvement of some army officials in politics does not mean that I am against the whole army--I think all those who use the Army for achieving some political objectives give a bad name to this institution and they are the real enemies of the Army. Using blasphemy charges against a TV channel to protect an army official is not a good service to the country. Spreading the flames of hatred may save one individual but ultimately these flames can burn the whole country in the fire of extremism.

CPJ: CPJ met with Prime Minister Sharif and Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed in March. We came away hopeful after we were given assurances the government would address the violence against journalists and the impunity with which it happens. It doesn't seem like much has changed since our meetings. Are there changes coming, new legislation say, that are just taking time to come into effect? Or has this government walked away from the issue?

HM: PM Nawaz Sharif and Information Minister Pervez Rashid tried their best to fulfill their promises but they have their own limitations. The attack on my life changed the whole scenario. Anti-democratic forces were able to divide media and political parties. First of all Geo TV was under attack and now Nawaz Sharif is under attack. Those federal ministers who were advising Nawaz Sharif to take action against Geo TV for saving the government proved wrong. Some political groups famous for their links with anti-democratic forces are now threatening Nawaz Sharif to resign, otherwise they will replace him with a million [man] march in the capital Islamabad. Nawaz Sharif is fighting for his own political survival. I hope that if he survives then we will demand that he must fulfill his promises made to CPJ.

CPJ: If the government can't protect journalists from militants or from its own security forces, where can journalists turn for protection? I used to argue that journalists themselves are well organized in Pakistan, and that the media industry for all its flaws, was fairly well united. It seems that since the government's response to Geo's coverage of the April attack on you, that solidarity has waned, if not disappeared. Is that accurate? Can the coherence of Pakistan's media players, from field reporters up to its owners, be regenerated? Did anything like that, in fact, ever exist?

HM: In many cases some journalists just left Pakistan because government failed to protect them from militants and security agencies. I think it's a short term solution for an individual but it is not a permanent solution [to] a big problem. I am facing security problems [for a long time]. I was asked by many friends and colleagues to leave Pakistan but I refused. I decided to stay in Pakistan because running away is not a good option. I am staying here and trying to survive and giving some hope to my colleagues facing security threats. Our unity is our solution. We were united when Gen. Pervez Musharraf imposed a ban on some TV anchors including me in 2007.We came on the roads and defeated him. We were again united after the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad. We organized big rallies and joint shows on many TV channels. We forced the government to set up a high powered commission for investigating the murder of Saleem Shahzad. Our unity became a problem for the powerful establishment of Pakistan. Enemies of democracy and free media changed their strategy. They adopted the strategy of divide and rule. Yes some TV anchors said in their shows that I am a traitor because I criticize intelligence agencies, yes banned outfits, cable operators and PEMRA were used against Geo TV, but on the other side working journalists from Karachi to Peshawar came out on the roads with my pictures in their hands. They defied the pressure of those who have guns in their hands and who have banned extremist groups on their side. The journalist community realized that media again need unity. Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) was divided in three groups. These groups now have started talking to each other for unity and trying to remove misunderstandings which were created long ago by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq in late 70s. I am still hopeful that unity of media will make a big difference. Surrender is no option.

CPJ: How is your health? I know the shooting took a terrible toll. How far along are you in terms of your recovery?

HM: I got six bullet injuries in my shoulder, lower back, stomach, and both legs. My bladder was damaged. My intestines were damaged. A stent was placed in my kidney. It was difficult for me to sit on a chair. I faced horrible pains. I used a wheelchair for two months, then I started using a walker, then used a stick for many days--now I can move without any help after three months. I still feel pain in my legs because bones in my both legs were damaged. I consulted an orthopedic surgeon in Cromwell Hospital London recently and now I am recovering very fast due to the prayers of millions of people. I have started my TV show again a few days back and proved all those wrong who predicted that Hamid Mir will run away from Pakistan. I am back on the TV screen but still facing pressures. I am sure that people of Pakistan will stand by us in our struggle of survival.

CPJ: What can groups like CPJ accomplish in Pakistan? How do we go about it?

HM: First of all I must say thanks to CPJ for doing an excellent job for the protection of journalists. Enemies of free media in Pakistan are angry with CPJ which means CPJ is doing a good job. CPJ must help and guide us for raising awareness [about] why free media is essential for strengthening the democracy and why Pakistan needs legislation for the protection of media. CPJ engaged not only top government officials but also met Pakistani intelligence officials in the recent past. I will appreciate further engagement of that kind in the future.

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